During the War of 1812, the Cherokee Nation provided a number of warriors for service in the American army under Col. Jackson. Several Cherokee officers served with distinction in that conflict, indeed some achieved lifelong fame from their exploits on the battlefield during that war.
The debate over which side to take in white men’s arguments has been an issue of disagreement among Cherokees for as long as white men have been fighting each other in (and over) Cherokee lands. From the earliest days of European colonization on Turtle Island, European powers, and their agents and minions, have sought to use Natives as cannon fodder in their wars and disagreements.
Among the Cherokees, there was always an agent of some authority or other trying to talk the Cherokee into shedding their life’s blood on some battlefield, in some conflict not of their making.
Over time, the Cherokee, or some of them at least, started to take a more skeptical attitude toward these agents, and the governments they represented, because they tended to be men whose relationship with the truth was uncomfortable at best and outright hostile at worst. Nevertheless, there has not been a conflict involving the United States since the close of the 18th century in which Cherokees have not served in the American army. Many of them decorated for conspicuous gallantry and courageous leadership under fire.
Several Cherokee officers who served with Jackson achieved lifelong fame for their exploits on the battlefield, particularly at Horseshoe Bend, a battle which would have been the death of Jackson and defeat for his army were it not for the courage and ingenuity of the officers and men of the Cherokee Regiment. Tradition tells us that Junaluska, headman of Qualla Town and Cherokee commander, personally saved the life of Jackson while under enemy fire during the battle of Horseshoe Bend.
After Jackson’s army was fought to a standstill and was slowly being ground into the mud by a well dug in Creek unit attacking from a fortified position, the officers of the Cherokee Regiment met among themselves to determine a way to break the stalemate. After some discussion, some of the Cherokee warriors, led tradition tells us, by Junaluska himself, with complete disregard for their own safety, swam the river and captured enough enemy canoes to send a landing party across the river. The securing of a beachhead at the rear of the enemy position, allowing an attack on the enemy position from multiple points, led to a victory for Jackson’s army.
We know from the history books that Jackson parlayed the victory of his army into a very successful political career, culminating in two terms as president of the United States. His thanks to Junaluska, the man who saved his life, was a one-way ticket on the Trail of Tears.
Like many veterans, both Native and otherwise, who have put their lives on the line only to find that their leaders were not as honorable as they had hoped, Junaluska later regretted the sacrifice he made in the service of Jackson.
As he was herded into a stockade by soldiers of the same government he fought for, Junaluska is reported to have said, “If I knew then what I know now, history would have been different”. This tends to be the experience of many people when they are taken advantage of by treacherous leaders.
They say change is hard. I think sometimes the absence of change is hard. Much has changed in the history of men. Much has not. One thing that has not changed is the tradition of politicians for whom perfidy is a religion, these are the ones who leave us saying “If I knew then what I know now”.